October 26, 2011
Falmouth Chorale Celebrates Community, Commitment, Voyage, and Redemption—and the Sea
In a glorious celebration of community, the Falmouth Chorale, directed by John Yankee, presented “The Coming of the Flood” this past weekend. The first half of the program featured the Falmouth Chorale and the Falmouth Chamber Chorale in a selection of pieces, written from the 1500s to 1992, about water, the ocean, the rain, and a lively spiritual about the animals.
After intermission, Mr. Yankee presented a rich and multifaceted “Noye’s Fludde,” a one-act opera by Benjamin Britton. As Mr. Yankee pointed out in his program notes, Britten wanted to serve the community with his music. He enjoyed “writing pieces for special occasions, music for children or amateurs,” and “Noyes’ Fludde” exemplifies this by including both professional and amateur singers and instrumentalists, and children, many children.
Robert Wyatt, music director at Highfield Hall, introduced the program with a pre-concert talk complete with recorded musical examples, shedding light on Mr. Yankee’s selections, and adding his own thoughtful and witty interpretations. Mr. Yankee included his own notes on the various works in the printed program, all of which was appreciated and enriched the listener’s understanding and enjoyment of the concert.
But whether or not one had a full understanding of the origins and the meaning of the music, it was a splendid concert and quite a spectacle. The 73-member chorale has wonderful expressive sound, and Mr. Yankee brings out every aspect of its musicality, giving each work a distinct flavor.
The concert started off with “If Ye Love Me,” by Thomas Tallis (1505 to 1585). The words of God, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” set the mood for the concert and the tale of Noah’s Ark to come, conveying, as Mr. Yankee wrote in the program guide, “morality, voyage, and redemption.” The music itself was gentle, rolling waves of song, a calm and beautiful beginning to the voyage, hinting at the range of the chorus.
Next, Randolph James, who plays with considerable grace, accompanied the chorale on piano on “Voyagers’ Chorus” from Mozart’s (1756-1791) opera, “Idomeneo.” The opera, based on Greek mythology, involves Idomeneo’s bargain with God after he was rescued at sea, a bargain he does not want to fulfill. “Voyagers’ Chorus” is about the calmness of the sea, rather than the storms, and the voices of the chorale conveyed both the stillness and the great strength of the sea. Mr. James’ piano solo lent an elegant touch.
“Allelulia,” by Randall Thompson (1899-1984) (Leonard Bernstein’s teacher), was composed for the opening of the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. Written in only five days, it premiered on July 8, 1940. Mr. Thompson finished the work, which was to become his most famous composition, 45 minutes before the concert was to start, Mr. Wyatt told us. The work is sad, reflective, rather than celebratory because Mr. Thompson was deeply concerned about the war in Europe.
Mr. Thompson said the piece was intentionally sad, intended to bring to mind the words: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
The lyrics are simply a repetition of “allelulia” throughout, the several voices of the chorus distinct and clear, building and dropping away, speeding up, conveying a sense of urgency and determination, and then slowing down, and, finally, very slowly and softly dying away.
Four “Choral Dances” by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) from his 1953 opera “Gloriana” were performed by the Falmouth Chamber Chorale, a subset of the larger chorale. “Gloriana” was written to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and referenced Queen Elizabeth I. It is said, Mr. Wyatt told us, that Elizabeth II was disappointed with the opera it presented Elizabeth I as a flawed character, motivated by vanity and desire.
“Gloriana” was, thus, not a hit, but the four dances are often performed as a group. Each is short, highlighting different voices: the high sopranos, the low tenors and basses, one very rhythmic and insistent, another calm, reverential, inspiring, presented with spirit.
The full chorale returned for “Song of the Fisherman,” another work by Britten, this time from his more successful 1945 opera “Peter Grimes.” It tells of the daily work of the fishermen, again referencing the sea.
Two spirituals followed, “Didn’t It Rain,” and “De Animals a-Comin,” both clearly related to the Noah’s Ark story, and both presented with robust expression. I particularly enjoyed “De Animals a-Comin’”:
The last piece on the first half of the program was a contemporary work by American composer Eric Whitacre (born 1970): “Cloudburst,” a work which earned him a Grammy nomination. Based on a poem of the same name by Octavio Paz, which was both printed in the program in Spanish and English and read at the pre-concert talk by Mary Swope, the work is simply amazing.
Soloists Edwin Celettte and Joan Baird and speakers Jeannette Hanlon and Brett Baird are featured, and “Cloudburst” also incorporates handbells, percussion, and piano. The 15 children of the Coro Ragazzi Children’s Chorus, along with a group of adults, all dressed in black, stood silently on either side of the chorus as they sang this beautiful, reverential, tender, and complex piece. Introduced by a cascade of handbells, a swelling of the chorus, and shimmering cymbals, they raised their arms about three-quarters of the way through the piece and added their own intricate clapping and snapping of fingers, sounding like the rain falling down. It is a powerful piece, and the chorale’s presentation was magical.
After intermission came the pièce de résistance: Benjamin Britten’s “Noye’s Flood,” for which the chorale relinquished the stage to professional and amateur singers, dancers, and musicians of all ages, and encouraged the participation of the audience. It was a wonderful production, full of life and feeling.
Paul Soper’s strong, firm baritone set just the right tone for Noye (Noah), who is told by God to build a ship. His sons, Sem (Kimberly Ayers), Ham (Erin M. Smith), and Jaffett (Eileen Christiansen) and their wives (Kimberly Moller, Sara Rodewald, and Christie Lee Gibson) set to work, but his wife, played by mezzo-soprano Tania Manzy, and her friends, the Gossips, mocked the project and refused to help. Ms. Manzy’s rich, textured voice was particularly appealing.
The animals soon arrived, played by 28 young dancers from Turning Point Dance Studio and 15 young singers from the chorale’s Coro Raggazzi Children’s Chorus. They boarded the ark from the aisles, singing “Kyrie elesion,” dancing, and, as appropriate, hopping, snarling, and pawing the ground, adding warmth and humor to the production.
As rains came and the the waves rose and fell, the orchestra had a chance to shine, portraying the wind and rain, and the hopes and fears of those on the ark. Amateur musicians were represented by seven members of the Falmouth Chamber Players Orchestra, and professionals came from the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra and elsewhere. Mr. Wyatt and Stephanie Weaver, director of the Cape Cod Conservatory played the piano, side by side, and Randolph James played organ. There was a recorder choir, led by Jan Elliot, five percussionists, and a bell choir. And a chorus of four bugles from the balcony.
One clearly had the sensation of being tossed at sea:
Eventually, the storm subsided, and Noye sent a Raven, danced by Pippa Ryan, and then a Dove, danced by Maddie Edgar, to see if they could find land. The Raven was dramatically accompanied by cellist Megan Koch, and the Dove, by Jan Elliot’s delicate, cooing recorder.
As all leave the ark, they sing a hymn, “This Spacious Firmament,” to the tune of Tallis’ Canon, inviting the audience to join in. Words to three of the hymns in the opera were projected onto the wall to allow and encourage the audience to sing along. And they did, with gusto. The audience, which nearly filled the Lawrence School auditorium for Saturday evening’s performance, was delighted with the concert, giving Mr. Yankee and his singers, instrumentalists, and dancers a hearty, sustained applause.
As Robert Wyatt, music director for Highfield Hall, said in his pre-concert talk, this was a true community event with “people you have seen around town, at Coffee O, the Clam Shack, and Subway, people who are your neighbors, and you are going to say, ‘I didn’t know they were musicians.’”
“’Noye’s Fludde,’ Mr. Wyatt said, “is a piece for everyone to play together.” Reflecting upon his first arrival on the Cape 10 years ago, Mr. Wyatt said, “I was struck, not only by the beauty of the place, but by the interesting people here. We have the ocean, a simple climate, two chamber orchestras, two exceptional choral groups, an excellent school system, a wonderful library—and a dog park.”